For several months, I’ve been collaborating with my friend Marcos Lutyens and his Rose River Memorial project. This public art installation is a grassroots movement that honors and grieves the many lives lost during the COVID pandemic in the United States. There are installations of Rose River Memorial in cities all across the US, including Los Angeles, Nashville, Topeka, and Houston. I have been project managing the creation of a Rose River Memorial installation in my home city of San Francisco, which we hope to place and dedicate late in 2022.
Rose River Memorial installations begin with felt roses that are crafted by individuals, families, clubs, and communities. The flowers are built on a simple design, with ordinary materials, including a scarlet fabric made from recycled water bottles. I find the process of building the bright red blooms wonderfully stress relieving and meaningful. I’ve been struggling so much over the last few years for so many reasons including the ongoing pandemic. Making flowers for Rose River Memorial helps me feel I have the right to rise up and rebuild my life in the wake of these devastating COVID years.
Yesterday, on Juneteenth, I met up with Marcos at the Martin Luther King memorial in Yerba Buena Gardens where we built an impromptu altar of felt roses, candles, and a fresh bouquet. Then, we set up a rose crafting workshop directly in front of the MLK fountain and went about making flowers that will eventually have their home in one of the San Francisco installations of Rose River Memorial.
Our altar also included two framed images. One included QR codes for Rose River Memorial, and Marked By COVID. If you’re not following @markedbyCOVID on your socials, please do. They are the nation’s leading COVID justice organization, promoting accountability, recognition, and a pandemic-free future. The other framed image on our altar at the MLK fountain was a list of statistics about COVID and its impact on the Black community, who represent about 13% of the US population. It’s frustrating and heartbreaking to read that Black Americans are 2.5 times as likely to be hospitalized for COVID and represent almost 23% of American COVID deaths. As we crafted flowers on Juneteenth in the mists of the MLK fountain, Marcos and I dialogued about ways to engage young Black arts activists in the Rose River Memorial project. Hopefully this autumn, we will have a student intern with ties to SF’s vibrant African American community who will help organize and develop this dynamic public art project.
After forming several dozen roses, Marcos and I packed up our art supplies, then hoofed it around San Francisco, from the Fillmore District to Lower Pacific Heights, then on to Lone Mountain were we’d hoped to get a glimpse inside of the Church of St. John Coltrane. Unfortunately, the sanctuary was already shut for the day. So we headed west to Golden Gate Park where we marveled at the roller skaters and soaked up the gorgeous public art at the Conservatory of Flowers. We wanted to get a whiff of Chanel, the Amorphophallus titanum “corpse flower” that is the crown jewel of the conservatory, and in bloom for the first time in 3 years. But the conservatory was closing as we arrived, so again, we were shut out. But the atrium of the De Young Museum was open, so we took a look around, and made notes about our hopes for Rose River Memorial in that location. We strolled to the band shell and listened to Crucial Reggae Sunday with Irie Dole with their special guest Exco Levi. Then, as a last stop on our San Francisco wander, I took Marcos to Tank Hill with its stunning panoramic views. We promised to keep working toward the Rose River Memorial SF installation, and agreed that grassroots arts movements like Rose River have elements of mystery. It’s not fully clear how the pieces will come together, but they do. And they will.
After our heartfelt Juneteenth in San Francisco crafting roses and dreaming of the installation, I was blown away this morning to wake up and see Rose River Memorial as the featured image in the New York Times. I called Marcos immediately, and we laughed with delight, wondering if we’d conjured up some magic in our San Francisco ramble. I sure hope so, as Rose River Memorial means so much to me. The COVID pandemic has left me gutted, as is true for so many Americans who have lost friends, family members, their businesses, their communities, and their livelihoods. I believe art can help us heal. It’s helping me heal. I can’t wait to bring this installion to the city I love…